After a stand-up show that left a rather bleak impression, it’s time for something a little lighter, as we swap the dubious nightlife of the Israeli provinces for village life in 1980s Poland. However, our latest Man Booker International Prize read does have something in common with the last one; both books hinge on childhood events, and today’s choice, while seemingly bright and breezy, gradually reveals the darker side to life in the country…
Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg
– Portobello Books, translated by Eliza Marciniak
(review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
Wiola (AKA Wiolka, Wiolitka, Loletka and, dare I suggest, Wioletta – there’s seemingly no end to Polish diminutives…) is a young girl growing up in Communist Poland at the start of the 1980s. We enter her life as an important figure rejoins it, with the start of the novel marked by her father’s release from prison (another victim of the turbulent times). What follows is a series of short, fragmentary episodes from the young girl’s life, a Bildungsroman set in the bucolic idyll of Hektary.
However, this isn’t just any old picture of the writer as a young girl. While the focus is mainly on Wiola and her community, it’s hard to ignore the wider context, with the protagonist effectively living in a Soviet-controlled state, even if the ties are somewhat looser here than in much of the Eastern bloc. One early chapter heralds an imminent change:
One day in the middle of July, my father got back from work early, and as he replaced the flypaper around the ceiling lamps, he said to my mother that martial law in Poland would end in a couple of days.
p.28 (Portobello Books, 2017)
Of course, true freedom is far in the future, and trouble is only a misstep away. Wiola finds this out the hard way when she is called into the office at school to explain why the picture of Moscow’s Red Square she entered in an art contest was so bleak. There’s a perfectly simple explanation, but the authorities suspect a more political motive…
This wider view does extend throughout the novel (with another example being the conflict between rival villagers at the time of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the country), but in truth, the focus in Swallowing Mercury is very much on the micro, not the macro. The book gently describes a traditional way of life that many of its original readers will recognise, with the villagers continuing the customs handed down by previous generations:
Then I sat at the table, which was set with plates full of pasta, laid my head down on the surface and felt the pulsating of the wood. In its cracks and knots, christenings, wakes and name-day celebrations were in full swing, and woodworms were playing dodgeball using poppy seeds that had fallen from the crusts of freshly baked bread. (p.17)
Wiola is very much a part of this community, and her short, matter-of-fact descriptions allow the reader a glimpse into its lifestyle.
However, Swallowing Mercury also describes Wiola as an individual, not just as a member of her community, and one of the strongest aspects of the novel is the way it shows her development, and her growing disillusionment with her life. She appears to have slightly self-destructive tendencies (although clumsiness plays a major role here…), walking off in the lethally cold, snowy night with no real destination in sight, and stumbling over ladders, with painful consequences. The English title, rather different from the original, continues along these lines, referring to another incident from her childhood that could have had even more serious consequences. The early pastoral charm is also later overshadowed by darker hues, particularly when Wiola grows older and is exposed to behaviour of a sexual nature, ugly, scarring experiences which cast a pall over her childhood.
It’s not all dark, though. Much of Wiola’s childhood is spent outside roaming the fields, and between the more serious events, we hear charming anecdotes of her early life, such as the time she wins a small statue of the Virgin Mary at church:
I wrapped the figure up in my woollen shawl, and as night fell Justyna, Big Witek and I took turns carrying it the two and a half miles to Hektary. Small lumps of ice kept falling into our boots. Our hands were frozen stiff, but we paid no attention. We were so excited about our prize that we kept crossing ourselves in front of every roadside shrine and holy spring; Big Witek even crossed himself in front of our headmistress’s villa, just in case her Dobermann came running at us through a gap in the fence. (pp.12/3)
There’s also a palpable sense of a connection between Wiola and her father, and it’s no coincidence that the novel begins with his arrival in her life. The first chapter shows how she reacquaints herself with him, and while he’s often in the background, his presence can be felt throughout – meaning that his health issues, when they develop, are likely to have a major effect on his daughter.
Swallowing Mercury is a novel of sorts, but it’s more a collection of snapshots taken over the course of a decade or so. These short scenes, most only a few pages long, come together to show Wiola’s passage from childhood to maturity. Less emotional than observational, they show us where the young girl has come from and gradually take us to a turning point, where she must decide where her next steps will lead her. It’s at this point, as with any good Bildungsroman, that the reader must bid her farewell and allow her to continue her path alone…
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
I’d have to say, no, not quite. Swallowing Mercury is a fairly light work, a pleasant read whose dark tones lift it beyond the average, and I did enjoy it. However, there isn’t really anything special here that would merit its being moved on to the final stage of the competition. It certainly deserves its moment in the sun, though, and hopefully more readers will now be aware of Greg’s work and give it a try 🙂
Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
This year’s longlist has been very strong, and there’s plenty of competition out there, so its chances were always pretty slight. I suspect that it was in direct competition with another book for the final spot on the shortlist (reserved for one of the lighter works considered) and lost out.
Whether that’s a good thing is another matter entirely…
As the early morning mist vanishes, let us hasten across the fields to catch the bus taking us further on our journey – we must leave country life behind and instead head off to the big city. Next time, we’ll be swapping Poland for Denmark, and childhood woes for a mid-life crisis – oh, and this time, we’ll actually be driving, too. Don’t forget to indicate – this trip will involve a fair few lane changes 😉